Penn State researcher and partners earn collaborative coastal resilience grant

At left, a photo from showing an inlet that was formed during Superstorm Sandy on the Rhode Island coast. At right is a visualization of a model simulation of the same event.
At left, a photo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows an inlet formed during Superstorm Sandy on the Rhode Island coast. At right is a visualization of a model simulation of the same event that will be used to simulate the implementation of natural and nature-based features.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — More than 40 percent of the U.S. population — around 127 million people — live in coastal communities, according to the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS). These communities contribute $6.6 trillion to the U.S. economy and provide more than 51 million jobs.

Yet these communities are among the most vulnerable when it comes to the impacts of climate change as they deal with rising sea levels, more severe storms and weather, ocean acidification and coastal erosion.

Peter Stempel, associate professor of landscape architecture in the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture's Stuckeman School, has partnered with researchers at the University of Rhode Island (URI) on a proposal that was awarded more than $360,000 from the NCCOS to assess how nature-based solutions reduce coastal vulnerability to sea level rise while preserving ecosystem services in Charlestown, Rhode Island. This project extends the work that the same team of researchers has been collaborating on since 2021.

The project is one of 18 from across the nation that the NCCOS will fund this fiscal year to the tune of $6.7 million.

According to the URI proposal, the viability of cultural uses and long-term physical and economic resilience of Charlestown depends on the continued protective ability of the coastal beach-barrier-lagoon system of the area, as well as the maintenance of the local ecosystem services that support tourism and the local economy in addition to providing protection.

“Implementing solutions to mitigate the risks to coastal communities due to storms with seal level rise involves tradeoffs between maintaining the protective and ecological functions of the dynamic beach-barrier lagoon systems and with preserving the local ecosystem services,” said Stempel, a faculty member of the Institute of Energy and the Environment and a researcher with the Ecology plus Design research center. “We will be addressing and optimizing these tradeoffs by using numerical models to test the performance of a range of potential nature-based solutions such as invasive species removal and other interventions that affect the stability of dunes and the availability of habitat.

The project's overall objective, according to the proposal, is to assess and optimize the short- and long-term performance of selected nature-based solutions in reducing the coastal vulnerability while preserving key ecosystem functions and services necessary to the viability of the adjacent community at three specific local sites selected along the south shore of Rhode Island: Charlestown's breachway, Charlestown Beach Road and East Beach.

As a co-principal investigator, Stempel will be contributing hazard, mitigation and vulnerability spatial visualizations to the project while also communicating with stakeholders.

“The visualization and interpretation work we do at Penn State is instrumental in bringing people together, sharing information and developing mutual understanding to advance these relatively new and unfamiliar approaches to balancing ecological benefits with needed protection for critical infrastructure,” said Stempel.

Issac Ginis, professor of oceanography at URI, is the principal investigator on the project. Co-PIs on the project from Rhode Island are Annette Grilli, research professor of ocean engineering; Stephan Grilli, distinguished professor and chair of ocean engineering; Pam Rubinoff, associate coastal manager at the Coastal Resource Center; and J.P. Walsh, professor of oceanography and director of the Coastal Resource Center.

Schools and Departments: Department of Landscape Architecture, Stuckeman School
Unit Research: A&A Sustainability, Ecology plus Design
Architecture Clusters: Sustainability (SUS)
Event Sponsors: Stuckeman School